ULTIMATE CHILE BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Ultimate Chile: Day 1 Our Ultimate Chile birding tour begins this morning at Arica airport in northernmost Chile, from where we drive southwards to the coastal city of Iquique for an overnight stay.
This afternoon we will have the chance to visit some Tamarugo (Prosopis tamarugo) woodlands inland in search of the poorly-known Tamarugo Conebill, a species found only in northernmost Chile and southernmost Peru. We should also come across Cream-winged (or Puna) Cinclodes, as well as Turkey Vulture and Rufous-collared Sparrow
Ultimate Chile: Day 2 The continental shelf lies not far offshore at Iquique, and today we will take a boat trip offshore in search of pelagic seabirds. As we are around 1150 miles (1850km) north of the Valparaiso area, we can expect a rather different combination of species and numbers. Pelagic birding off Iquique is generally far superior to that off Arica. Star attractions here are Buller’s Albatross and also both Elliot’s and the sought-after Markhams’s Storm Petrels, both of which we have a high chance of seeing. There is also a fair chance of the much-wanted Hornby’s, Wedge-rumped and White-bellied Storm Petrels, as well as a better chance of encountering Juan Fernández Petrel than off the Valparaiso region, as the latter species tends to feed in warmer waters. We could also encounter Blue-footed Booby or Swallow-tailed Gull.
We should also encounter Humboldt Penguin, Black-browed and Buller’s Albatrosses, Southern Giant Petrel, White-chinned Petrel, Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters, Wilson’s Storm Petrel, Peruvian Diving Petrel, Peruvian Pelican, Peruvian Booby, Neotropic, Red-legged and Guanay Cormorants, Chilean Skua, Grey, Belcher’s (or Band-tailed) and Franklin’s Gulls, the stunning Inca Tern and Elegant Tern, as well as Ruddy Turnstone, Surfbird and Sanderling at the shoreline. All in all, this is going to be a fantastic experience.
After our pelagic adventure, we will drive northwards along the Pan-American Highway to Arica for an overnight stay.
Ultimate Chile: Day 3 A bustling port and frontier town, Arica stands on the coast only a few miles from the Peruvian border. In what used to be Peruvian territory until the ‘War of the Pacific’, this is land-locked Bolivia’s gateway to the world with just a single train travelling daily to La Paz. Here, in the Atacama desert, one of the driest regions on earth, flow several rivers – the most well known being the Lluta and the Azapa. Although only small rivers carrying melt-water down from the Andes, their well-cultivated flood plains form a rich oasis in this harsh environment.
Our most important target species will be the diminutive endemic Chilean Woodstar (one of Chile’s rarest and most threatened birds, whose world population is now believed to number no more than 200). Remarkably this species is known only from a tiny area in northernmost Chile, apart from a few historical records of vagrants from further north and south.
Other great birds in this interesting area include four restricted-range specialities shared only with coastal Peru: the sturdy Oasis Hummingbird, the entertaining, tail-wagging Peruvian Sheartail and the spectacular little Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant and the handsome Slender-billed Finch (a species not seen on any current Birdquest tour in Peru).
We should also encounter Black Vulture, American Kestrel, the impressive Peruvian Thick-knee, West Peruvian (or Pacific) Dove, Croaking Ground-Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Burrowing Owl, Andean Swift, White-crested Elaenia (the form here is sometimes split as Peruvian Elaenia), Vermilion Flycatcher, Bran-coloured Flycatcher (the local form is a strong candidate for a future split), Barn Swallow, Cinereous Conebill, Chestnut-throated Seedeater, Blue-black Grassquit, Shiny Cowbird and Peruvian Meadowlark.
Later we shall drive out of the Lluta Valley, climbing through the desert foothills into the relatively verdant high Andes. The first vegetation we encounter is striking stands of candelabra cacti which gradually give way to incredibly silent, nitrate-rich deserts and stony, scrub-filled gullies.
We will be making a couple of stops en route, primarily for the restricted-range Greyish Miner and also for Straight-billed Earthcreeper, before reaching Putre, our base for the next two nights and the gateway to Lauca National Park.
Ultimate Chile: Day 4 Waking up in the sleepy Andean town of Putre at 3500m (11,500ft), where Aymara Indian town folk go about their daily business, we walk the cobbled streets through a maze of white-washed buildings and thatched roofs to a deep shrub-filled gulley. Here we hope to feast our eyes on a good variety of Andean slope birds, including Variable Hawk, Bare-faced and Black-winged Ground Doves, Andean Hillstar, Giant Hummingbird, Plain-breasted Earthcreeper, White-winged Cinclodes, Streaked Tit-Spinetail, Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant, White-browed Chat-Tyrant, Chiguanco Thrush, Black-throated Flowerpiercer, Blue-and-yellow Tanager, Golden-billed Saltator, Black-hooded and Ash-breasted Sierra Finches, Greenish Yellow Finch, Band-tailed Seedeater, Hooded Siskin and perhaps Spot-winged Pigeon.
The major restricted-range specialities here are Canyon Canastero and in particular, White-throated Earthcreeper, which is found only in northernmost Chile and southern Peru, and Dark-winged Canastero, restricted to northernmost Chile, southern Peru and western Bolivia. Both of the latter species can only be seen on our Chile tour. We will also search for Peruvian Pygmy Owl, a species which was described as new to science as recently as 1991, although it is generally hard to find.
Because of the high altitudes involved, we will only make our first visit to Lauca National Park this afternoon in order to allow time for acclimatization. This afternoon’s birding will see us reach a maximum altitude of 4300m (14,100ft), while the following day we will be visiting South America’s highest lake, Lago Chungara, situated at 4500m (14,800ft).
Lauca National Park is a place of outstanding natural beauty. The towering snow-capped volcanoes of Pomerape and Parinacota soar to over 6300m (20,700ft) and reflect perfectly in the deep blue waters of Chungara and Cotocotani Lakes. A relatively short drive from Putre sees a rapid change of scenery as we penetrate above 4000m (13,100ft) and we find ourselves in the surreal world, the altiplano, which extends through parts of Chile and Argentina and much of Bolivia and southern and central Peru.
This harsh landscape of puna tussock grasslands, desert and shrubby steppe, dotted with numerous lakes, pools and cushion-plant bogs, is home to a large number of high Andean specialities, the most notable of which are Puna and Ornate Tinamous, Silvery Grebe of the high Andean race juninensis (a potential split), Giant Coot (which can be seen tending their enormous nest mounds), the uncommon Puna Snipe and in particular the restricted-range White-throated Sierra Finch, a species that also occurs in southernmost Peru and western Bolivia but which is only ever seen on our Chile tours.
High Andean specialities of wider distribution are ‘Puna’ Rhea (which is sometimes split from Lesser), Puna Ibis, Andean Goose, Puna Teal, Andean Duck, Mountain Caracara, Andean Coot, Andean Lapwing, Puna Plover, Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, Andean Avocet, Andean Gull, Andean Flicker, Puna Miner, Cordilleran Canastero, Puna, White-fronted and Rufous-naped Ground Tyrants, Andean Negrito and the impressive White-winged Diuca-Finch. If we are very fortunate we will come across a White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant. Diademed Sandpiper-Plover also occurs here, so we will have a first chance to observe this beautiful and extraordinary ‘shorebird’ during our explorations at Lauca.
When water levels are right, three flamingo species (Chilean, Andean and the rare Puna or James’s) can often be found at Lauca in good numbers, although in some years their numbers diminish when changing feeding conditions force many of them to move elsewhere.
Amongst the many more widespread birds we may well see here are Crested and Torrent Ducks, Speckled Teal, Aplomado Falcon, Greater Yellowlegs, Baird’s Sandpiper, Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant, Andean Swallow, Plumbeous Sierra Finch, Black and Yellow-rumped Siskins, and perhaps Bright-rumped Yellow Finch.
Southern (or Mountain) Viscachas (giant chinchillas) and large numbers of grazing Vicuña are a common sight and we should also encounter Guanacos at lower altitudes. There is even the possibility of seeing the threatened Peruvian Huemul (or Taruca), a rare deer of the pre-puna slopes.
Ultimate Chile: Day 5 Our second day’s birding in Lauca National Park will be followed by a return to Arica for an overnight stay.
Ultimate Chile: Day 6 An early morning flight from Arica will take us back to Santiago airport, from where we shall drive to Quintero on the Pacific coast near Valparaiso for an overnight stay.
We will stop en route at a large, sedge-lined lake in the quiet El Peral reserve. Here we shall find a good selection of waterbirds, likely including Great, Pied-billed and White-tufted Grebes, Black-crowned Night Heron, Great and Snowy Egrets, Black-necked Swan, Lake Duck, Yellow-billed Pintail, Red Shoveler, Chiloé (or Southern) Wigeon, Plumbeous Rail, Red-gartered, Red-fronted and White-winged Coots, and quite possibly Cinnamon Teal and Spot-flanked Gallinule. We will also be looking for the localized and uncommon Black-headed Duck, the worlds only exclusively parasitic duck species.
Either here or at another location we have a good chance of finding the uncommon Ticking Doradito, a species restricted to central Chile and west-central Argentina. The extensive sedge beds also hold Wren-like Rushbird and the smart Many-coloured Rush Tyrant, and with luck, we will see Stripe-backed Bittern.
Later, we will explore estuaries, bays and rocky stretches of coastline where we should encounter the endemic Chilean Seaside Cinclodes and some South American Sealions, along with shorebirds such as American and Blackish Oystercatchers, White-backed Stilt, South American Snipe, Hudsonian Whimbrel, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Brown-hooded Gull and Black Skimmer. Other species that are likely today include Western Cattle Egret, Chimango Caracara, Southern Lapwing, Picui Ground Dove, Eared Dove, Spectacled Tyrant, House Wren, Grassland Yellow Finch, Yellow-winged Blackbird and Long-tailed Meadowlark.
Ultimate Chile: Day 7 Today we shall take a boat trip out of Valparaiso into the bird-rich waters of the Humboldt Current. This cold water Antarctic current, which surfaces off the Chilean coast, is rich in nutrients and supports large fish and squid populations. Attracted to these are great numbers of seabirds, some endemic to these waters, some wanderers from further afield.
We will see many of the species we first encountered off Iquique, but there will be some major differences. As we leave the harbour we should encounter Kelp Gull and South American Tern for the first time. With growing excitement, we shall scan amongst the hordes of Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters for some of the more regular pelagic visitors, which include Salvin’s and Northern Royal Albatrosses, Masatierra (or Defilippe’s) and Westland Petrel.
With a bit of luck, we will come across several of the scarcer pelagic species, which include Southern Royal, Chatham and Grey-headed Albatrosses, Northern Giant Petrel, Juan Fernández Petrel, Buller’s Shearwater, Red-necked and Red (or Grey) Phalaropes, and Sabine’s Gull. If we are fortunate, we will also encounter one or more species of cetacean, with possibilities including Great Sperm Whale and Dusky Dolphin.
In the late afternoon, we will drive a short distance into the coastal cordillera and stay overnight at the pleasant colonial town of Olmue, near the entrance to La Campana National Park.
Ultimate Chile: Day 8 The morning will be spent birding La Campana National Park, so named because of the bell-shaped mountain which dominates the park. This impressive park contains some of the northernmost Nothofagus (Southern Beech) forest and also thorny scrub and cacti, resembling the ‘chaparral’ country of California.
We will take advantage of the considerable bird activity at first light to search for two secretive endemic tapaculos. With some judicial use of playback, we should lure into view the large White-throated Tapaculo, whose loud, whooping song often reveals its presence, and the diminutive Dusky Tapaculo.
Other major target species include the impressive Moustached Turca (a large tapaculo endemic to central Chile) and Crag Chilia (a sleek, rock-loving, endemic furnariid of outcrops and escarpments), although there will be further opportunities to see both of these. The endemic Dusky-tailed Canastero gives itself away by its trilling song, while other specialities we should encounter today include Chilean Pigeon, Chilean Flicker, the inquisitive Thorn-tailed Rayadito, Chilean Elaenia, Fire-eyed Diucon, Austral Thrush, Chilean Mockingbird (a fairly widespread near-endemic), Chilean Swallow, Common Diuca-Finch, Austral Blackbird and Black-chinned Siskin.
More widespread birds in this area include Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail, Tufted Tit-Tyrant and Blue-and-white Swallow, while the California Quails here are introduced.
When we finally tear ourselves away from the forest, we will drive back to the Santiago region for a two nights stay.
We will stop en-route at some sedge-lined pools to search for the impressive South American Painted-snipe and have a second chance for Stripe-backed Bittern. We are also likely to see Harris’s Hawk, Chimango Caracara, Grass Wren and Correndera Pipit.
Ultimate Chile: Day 9 The Santiago region is dominated by the magnificent Andes and on clear days there are inspiring views from every part of the region. Rising from the vineyards and farms of the central valley and soaring to 22,834ft (6960m) at the summit of Aconcagua (the highest mountain in the Americas), they are as accessible here as anywhere on the continent. Winding mountain roads with hairpin bends lead from one breathtaking view to another.
Today’s birding is strictly Andean, although there will be no need to ascend higher than about 8200ft (2500m). We will be covering a variety of montane habitats including bushy valleys, jagged rocky outcrops, scree slopes and boggy grasslands where we should encounter the remarkable Diademed Sandpiper-Plover (one of the world’s most attractive, yet least known, ‘shorebirds’), Grey-breasted Seedsnipe, White-sided Hillstar (often tricky to identify, but not known to be sympatric with Andean, which occurs at higher altitudes), Rufous-banded Miner (the local form is a candidate for a split), Grey-flanked Cinclodes, Sharp-billed Canastero, Austral Negrito, White-browed, Ochre-naped, Cinereous and the localized Black-fronted Ground Tyrants, Grey-hooded, Mourning and Band-tailed Sierra Finches, the localized Greater Yellow Finch and Yellow-rumped Siskin.
With a bit of luck, we will also find Mountain Parakeet, the restricted-range Creamy-rumped Miner and Great Shrike-Tyrant. Andean Condors often soar overhead and we will keep a close eye on sections of rushing meltwater rivers for Torrent Duck.
Ultimate Chile: Day 10 This morning we will drive southwards to Vilches, in the Talca region, for an overnight stay, stopping en route to look for the secretive and endemic Chilean Tinamou.
In the afternoon we will explore the extensive Nothofagus forest in the Andean foothills, which here reaches its northern limits. In particular, we will be listening for the nasal scolding and squeaky toy voice of Chile’s least-known endemic tapaculo, the Chestnut-throated Huet-huet. Until recently this species was sometimes lumped with its close relative the Black-throated Huet-Huet, but DNA and vocalization studies have now shown that these are indeed separate species. This large skulker favours bamboo undergrowth in shady forest where it scrapes the forest floor with its outsized tarsus. With patience and some careful manoeuvring, we should have a good chance of seeing it.
We will also be looking for Rufous-tailed Plantcutter (the only cotingid found this far south) and more Nothofagus forest endemics such as Austral Parakeet (the worlds most southerly parrot species), the plump, near-endemic Chucao Tapaculo with its explosive voice, Magellanic Tapaculo, Striped Woodpecker, Dark-bellied Cinclodes, the tree-hugging, chisel-billed White-throated Treerunner and Patagonian Sierra Finch. After dusk, we will look for the striking Rufous-legged Owl (now a Patagonian endemic following the splitting off of Chaco Owl).
Ultimate Chile: Day 11 After some final birding in the Vilches area, during which we will seek out the rare Spectacled Duck and the local race of the impressive Burrowing Parrot, we will head southwards to Termas de Chillán for an overnight stay.
Termas de Chillán is a small ski resort town in the Andes and our main target here is the restricted-range Patagonian Forest Earthcreeper, which has been split from Scale-throated and is restricted to part of the Chilean and Argentine Andes, although it is decidedly uncommon and not at all easy to find. We will also have a first opportunity to look for the much sought-after Magellanic Woodpecker (South America’s largest woodpecker) and many of the birds listed for the Puyehue. We also have another opportunity to find Great Shrike-Tyrant in this area.
Ultimate Chile: Day 12 We will spend some time around Termas de Chillán this morning and then continue southwards to Puyehue National Park for a two nights stay.
Ultimate Chile: Day 13 The spectacular Puyehue National Park is dominated by the maximum diversity of Nothofagus species, under which a dense undergrowth of Chusquea bamboo conceals a multitude of exciting but secretive tapaculos. One of the most spectacular is the huge, near-endemic Black-throated Huet-huet, 10 inches (26 centimetres) of black and chestnut plumes, which has a scolding, onomatopoeic call and a bird which positively vibrates as it broadcasts its deeply resonant song. We will also be searching for the bamboo-dwelling Ochre-flanked Tapaculo, yet another monotypic genus and endemic to the Nothofagus forest. Having played hide-and-seek with these enigmatic birds we will spend the rest of our time exploring this atmospheric reserve. Here we aim to find some outstanding species including such near-endemic specialities as Chilean Hawk, Austral Pygmy Owl, Green-backed Firecrown, the much sought-after Magellanic Woodpecker (South America’s largest woodpecker), the tiny restless Des Murs’s Wiretail and the poorly-known Patagonian Tyrant. White-throated Hawk is also possible.
Higher up, at the crater of the Volcan Raihuen, we will search for Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant and the striking Yellow-bridled Finch, providing weather conditions permit.
Ultimate Chile: Day 14 Today we will head further southwards to Puerto Montt. As we travel through the beautiful Chilean lake district we will enjoy (providing it is a clear day) the spectacular views of Volcan Osorno, one of the most perfect cones and most photographed volcanoes in the Southern Cone of South America. Flocks of Black-faced Ibises, with their far-carrying trumpeting calls, are still a familiar sight amidst the pleasant countryside, where the pace of life is refreshingly slow. This is a good area for the endemic Slender-billed Parakeet. This localized species has a specially adapted long maxilla for extracting Araucaria (monkey puzzle) seeds when in season, but it spends the rest of the year amongst crops and orchards.
Puerto Montt is a thriving port with Chile’s largest salmon farms forming the mainstay of the local economy. The picturesque Isla de Chiloé, where we will stay overnight, lies just a short distance away.
The ferry-crossing should provide good opportunities to observe Magellanic Diving Petrel, Imperial and Rock Cormorants, and probably some pelagic visitors, perhaps including one or two species we have missed previously. There is even a fair chance of encountering the recently-described Pincoya Storm Petrel, which is a cryptic species that was previously overlooked as Wilson’s Storm Petrel. It is still very poorly known, and its breeding grounds have not yet been discovered, but it is likely to be an endemic species that breeds in the Chilean Fjords rather than on oceanic islands.
During our visit to beautiful Chiloé Island, we will encounter ‘Chiloe Steamer-Duck’, an as-yet-undescribed endemic species, Kelp Goose and Magellanic Oystercatcher, a Patagonian endemic. This is probably the best place in Chile for the rare Rufous-tailed Hawk and we will also have another chance for the handsome Slender-billed Parakeet. We will also visit a mixed colony of Magellanic and Humboldt Penguins.
Ultimate Chile: Day 15 After some final birding on Isla de Chiloé we will take the ferry back to Puerto Montt and continue to the Puerto Montt airport, where the main section of our Ultimate Chile birding tour ends this afternoon.
PATAGONIA & TIERRA DEL FUEGO EXTENSION
Ultimate Chile (Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego): Day 1 We will take a late afternoon flight from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas in southernmost Chile for an overnight stay. This spectacular flight follows the Andes southwards over uninhabited terrain marked by volcanoes, hundreds of ice-encrusted peaks, glaciers and inaccessible lakes before the mountains give way to the flat steppes of Patagonia.
Ultimate Chile (Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego): Day 2 This morning we will take the direct, roughly two-hours, ferry from Punta Arenas to Porvenir on the island of Tierra del Fuego, where we will stay overnight.
Once again the number of tubenoses during the crossing will testify to the richness of Chilean waters. Black-browed Albatrosses and Southern (or Common) Giant-Petrels are common, and we will have another chance for good looks at Magellanic Diving Petrels and Chilean Skuas. Sometimes Cape Petrels and Southern Fulmars can be seen, or even Peale’s Dolphins.
Tierra del Fuego is a place that Charles Darwin described in his book The Voyage of the Beagle as ‘a scene of savage magnificence’. It was named by Magellan after the fires the local Amerindians lit to warn others of his arrival. Porvenir is a small town where Croatian settlers were attracted by a gold rush in 1883.
At the top of the agenda in Tierra del Fuego will be the strange and highly sought-after Magellanic Plover, such an oddball that it has been placed in its own family and indeed may not even be a shorebird at all. Although inconspicuous, it can be remarkably tame. Additional target birds will include Fuegian (or Flightless) and Flying Steamer Ducks, Two-banded Plover, White-rumped Sandpiper and the handsome Dolphin Gull. We will also dedicate some time to tracking down the threatened Ruddy-headed Goose, now down to just 300 pairs in South America proper (and almost extinct on the mainland), although still thriving in the Falklands. Snowy (or Pale-faced) Sheathbill is also possible. Another important target is the splendid Magellanic Horned Owl.
We will also visit Bahía Inútil (Useless Bay) in order to enjoy the recently-established colony of King Penguins that now makes this area their home. Of all the penguins, Kings are probably the most impressive and there are generally between 50 and 150 present.
Ultimate Chile (Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego): Day 3 We will head off early for the northern coast of Tierra del Fuego and make the short ferry crossing to the mainland. The ferry is often accompanied by Commerson’s Dolphins, a stunning black-and-white species endemic to Patagonia and the Falklands. Once ashore, we shall head for the Torres del Paine National Park region for a two nights stay.
During the journey, we will explore some wild Patagonian back roads. High on our list of targets will be such glorious specialities as Tawny-throated and Rufous-chested Dotterels, Scale-throated Earthcreeper, Chocolate-vented Tyrant and the uncommon White-bridled (or Black-throated) Finch. In addition, both Common and Short-billed Miners should be encountered.
Ultimate Chile (Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego): Day 4 Exploring the world-famous Torres del Paine National Park is a wonderful experience. Thrusting abruptly over 6600ft (2000m) out of the Patagonian Plain, the Torres del Paine are perhaps South America’s most dramatic mountain landscape. Surrounded by glaciers and stunted forests, these granite towers (torres being Spanish for towers, though the origin of Paine is still debated) dominate the majestic scenery of the region. Meltwater from the glaciers plunges over vertical cliffs, forming rushing rivers which feed a multitude of azure lakes surrounded by meadows full of foxgloves and daisies. From every angle, the awesome spires offer a different yet equally dramatic aspect and we shall surely have difficulty deciding when to call a halt to the scenic photography!
Guanacos, a wild relative of the Llama, are a common sight and Argentine Grey Foxes are regularly seen. We even have quite a good chance of encountering a Puma (or Mountain Lion). Not just because their habits in the area are starting to become better known, but also because they have become less fearful of humans.
This is Andean Condor country par excellence and one of the few places where these spectacular birds remain truly common. Often to be found on the ground in the early morning, when the up-draughts start we shall likely see them in all their splendour as they unfurl their mighty wings, take to the air and rapidly gain height above our heads.
The major avian attraction here is the very rare and poorly-known Austral Rail. A Birdquest tour group discovered it in the park in 2010, and we shall certainly make an effort to see this fairly elusive speciality which was feared extinct for almost 50 years. Hearing one is the easy part, but with persistence, we have a good chance of seeing one.
Other interesting birds we shall look for both inside and outside the park include Lesser Rhea (here of the form known as ‘Darwin’s Rhea’), Silvery Grebe, Coscoroba Swan, elegant Upland and Ashy-headed Geese, Bronze-winged (or Spectacled) Duck, Cinereous Harrier, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Southern Crested Caracara, White-throated Caracara (scarce), Peregrine, Wilson’s Phalarope, Least Seedsnipe, Austral Canastero, Cinnamon-bellied Ground Tyrant, Patagonian Mockingbird, Patagonian Yellow Finch and the scarce Yellow-bridled Finch. We have another good opportunity here to locate the impressive Magellanic Woodpecker, which occurs at a low density in these southern forests.
Ultimate Chile (Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego): Day 5 After a final day enjoying the magnificent Patagonian wilderness we will return to Punta Arenas for an overnight stay.
Ultimate Chile (Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego): Day 6 Our Ultimate Chile birding tour extension ends this morning at Punta Arenas airport.